Troops from China’s People’s Liberation Army continue to deploy construction equipment in an effort to drive a dirt track through the strategic Doklam plateau despite a three week stand-off with the Indian Army and the Royal Bhutan Army, senior Indian government officials said on Friday. The PLA’s road works, the officials said, are aimed at bringing a road close to Doka La, India’s last military post on the junction of its boundary with Bhutan and China.
Both sides have reinforced their positions amidst a continuing war of words between Beijing and New Delhi. Indian military officials rejected claims that there were signs of imminent conflict in the region — the site of intense skirmishes in 1967, provoked by similar disputes over border works.
In first official comments on the crisis, New Delhi admitted that its troops had blocked PLA road works inside Bhutan territory claimed by China, saying “such construction would represent a significant change of status quo with serious security implications for India”.
India and Bhutan, the government said, have been in “continuous contact” over the Doklam developments. “In coordination with the Bhutanese government, Indian personnel, who were present at general area Doka La, approached the Chinese construction party and urged them to desist from changing the status quo… these efforts continue,” a government statement said.
It said the matter has been “under discussion” at the diplomatic level, both in New Delhi and Beijing. Sources said that Indian ambassador Vijay Gokhale had conveyed India’s concerns in Beijing, while senior officials in the Ministry of External Affairs have reached out to their Chinese counterparts. “It was also the subject of a Border Personnel Meeting at Nathu La on 20 June,” the government said.
The Indian side has underlined that the two governments had agreed in 2012 that the tri-junction boundary points between India, China and third countries will be finalised in consultation with the countries concerned. “Any attempt, therefore, to unilaterally determine tri-junction points is in violation of this understanding,” it said.
In Beijing, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Lu Kang said diplomatic channels with India were “unimpeded” for “meaningful talks” over the military stand-off but maintained that Indian troops must first withdraw from the Doklam area over which Beijing has “indisputable sovereignty”. He said Indian troops “trespassed” the recognised delineated boundary between China and India on June 18.
Donglong (the name China uses for Doklam), he said, had been a traditional pasture for Tibetan residents. “We have exercised good administration over the area and before the 1960s, people from Bhutan required consent from China for cattle grazing and the Tibetan archives still have receipts of the same,” Lu said.
“Frankly, this crisis has surprised the government”, a senior Indian diplomatic official said, “coming after what New Delhi had seen as a willingness on China’s part to iron out problems in the relationship. During their recent summit meeting in Astana, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had told President Xi Jinping that we did not want differences to want disputes, and he agreed”.
Bhutan’s Army, Indian military sources said, has remained in close touch with their Indian counterparts, but has not operationally deployed in the effort to push back Chinese road-building in Doklam. “Bhutan is in a very uncomfortable position,” a diplomat said. “It is acutely sensitive about the intrusion on its sovereignty, but also does not want a crisis to break out”.
The Doklam plateau was first claimed by China in the late 1950s, in the build-up to its 1962 war with India. Ever since 1988, PLA patrols have regularly cut past Bhutan’s claim line, the Sinche La ridge, using a network of dirt tracks which lead up to Chele La post, the country’s permanent position on the Zompelri ridge, which leads westward from India’s Doka La post.
Indian government sources said the ongoing crisis began on June 16, when the PLA moved a substantial earthmoving unit on to the Doklam plateau, and began building a road leading towards Doka La. Royal Bhutan Army soldiers from the Zompelri ridge, the sources said, attempted to intervene, but were pushed back on to the ridge.
However, in response to a request from the beleaguered Bhutanese troops, Indian soldiers on Doka La moved down the ridge, and obstructed the border works, leading to a stand-off.
Indian Army sources said this confrontation had been preceded by a scuffle between a PLA road construction unit and Indian troops on the night June 4-5, which had resulted in minor injuries to two Chinese personnel. China then used earthmoving equipment to demolish a two-decade-old earth-and-rock bunker near Doka La, at a position Indian soldiers refer to as Laltain.
Troops, military sources said, are now located on either side of a position in Chinese-claimed Bhutanese territory below Doka La, called Turning Point, in a face-to-face position, using banners and loud-hailers to assert their claims.
“No pushing and shoving is taking place”, a government official insisted. “The video that has been doing the rounds is archival, not from the current crisis, and completely misrepresents the situation.”
New Delhi, an Indian diplomat said, has told Beijing that its construction works mark an effort to unilaterally determine a three-country junction marked a violation of written accords arrived at between special representatives of the two governments.
In addition, New Delhi has rejected Beijing’s claims, made in statements by its Foreign Ministry, that the India-China boundary in Sikkim is settled, noting that the two countries have yet to agree to demarcation of their borders.
Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the region, experts say, could be aimed at pushing Bhutan to agree to swap Doklam — a springboard for potential Indian strikes on China’s road and future rail links north to Lhasa — for other territory it has asserted claims to in the north.
Though both sides appear committed to avoid any escalation of the stand-off, the history of the 1967 crisis in the Chumbi Valley — the same territory now at stake — shows disputes over border construction can have serious outcomes. In that case, India responded to Chinese trench construction on its side of the boundary by laying a barbed-wire fence, leading the PLA to open fire with machine guns.
Indian Army units, well positioned on high ground above the Sebu La pass, were able to bring down accurate artillery fire, destroying several bunkers and inflicting large numbers of casualties. Later that year, a scuffle on the Cho La pass again led to clashes, in which the PLA was pushed back three kilometres. The initial attack, scholar Taylor Fravel recorded, was not authorised by China’s all-powerful Central Military Commission, and then Premier Zhou Enlai subsequently ordered the PLA not to open fire unless fired upon.